Nightingales, #MeToo and Poetry-World

Myself and other poets have spoken recently about younger women poets asking us “Was this okay?…” of things that clearly weren’t. My story is sometimes confusing and fragmented but the “This is not okay” moments have become clearer to me now I have written them down. I am not talking about relationships that implode and cause awkwardness which is particularly acute because the poetry scene is so small. I am not talking about clumsy advances by poets who overestimate their attractiveness to their fellow word-weavers. I am talking about (mainly but not exclusively older,male) poets who serially abuse their power and experience in poetry-world in relation to (mainly but not exclusively younger, female) poets.

Sometimes we know more than we know. I used to tell the story I am going to tell now as a love story or as a coming of age story. But all along, it was a story about power, and deep down I recognised this. In jokey emails soon after I met the man I sometimes called the Miserable Poet, I began mentioning the myth of Philomela. She was a Princess of Athens and her brother-in-law King Tereus raped her. She then wove this story into a tapestry and sent it to his wife, her sister. In fury Tereus cut out Philomela’s tongue (In some versions, he cut off her hands). The sisters join together to get revenge and Tereus ends up unknowingly eating his son in a pie. Philomela is then transformed into a nightingale (in some versions, a swallow) and continues to sing about what Tereus did to her. The myth is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and pops up everywhere from T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, to a Margaret Atwood novella and a Timberlake Wertenbaker play. It is a story about male violence and female power. It is a story about being silenced and resisting this, as well as one about transforming traumatic stories into other forms and the power of speaking out together. Surely Philomela is the muse of the #MeToo movement.

One translation of Metamorphoses has her vow:

Still my revenge shall take its proper time,
And suit the baseness of your hellish crime.
My self, abandon’d, and devoid of shame,
Thro’ the wide world your actions will proclaim.

T.S Eliot recounts how she speaks even when the world finds what she has to say unpleasant:

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug, jug” to dirty ears.

Having the Philomela myth as a sort of reference point is not really a good sign for a relationship. It’s like having “Smack My Bitch Up” as an “Our Song”. At some level I recognised that this man, seventeen years older than me, was dangerous. However, I didn’t have a conscious way of describing how. On the surface he was charming and engaging. People liked him. But some recognised patterns in his dealings with women that troubled them. One friend called him “The Vampire”. I had just started doing poetry open mikes. He had been in the scene twenty years. He ran a magazine and a small publishing house, promoted gigs and made a full-time living as a poet. He told me I was a real poet. Booked me for a gig and asked me to run two of his workshops on a primary school project.

The prospect of running a poetry workshop in a school sounded exciting and terrifying. I’d never even been in a poetry workshop in a school, unless you count that time a student teacher got us to write haiku and I elongated “It’s snowing” over seven syllables. This would be my first proper poetry work. In at the deep end, but I thought I could do it. I’d only been doing poems for a year or so, starting off in open mikes and then getting more and more paid gigs. This seemed like an exciting step into a new world. We’d also both been invited to join a poetry group called the Poetry Vandals. A kind of rock band, or maybe awkward indie band, of now seven poets who performed in pubs and at festivals all over the North East and beyond.

Aged thirty I’d been coasting as a radio newsreader for a few years. Suddenly now, I knew lots of creative people. In fact, I was one of those creative people. I was using my voice to speak my own words instead of news bulletins in which Tony Blair, Brad Pitt and the Angel of the North competed for the minute’s space I had on the radio to sum up the world in a way which wouldn’t put anybody off the dance tracks or carpet adverts. I had what seemed to be the makings of a new way of earning money, somewhere to practice being a poet and better, I was part of a group. Scott, one of the other members affectionately called it a dysfunctional family. To me, it was a community and opened doors to an even wider community of writers, performers and musicians. After living in a bedsit while doing my A-levels, then working long, unsociable hours as a radio journalist and not having much outside the job throughout my twenties, suddenly knowing people outside of that was heady and joyous. People who also liked words. Who would talk about them and perform them and share them with others. People who liked my words. Finally, I was living. Many people feel like this when they join poetry communities. They are spaces where people find they are accepted for first time-spaces where vulnerable people feel safe.

Me and the Miserable Poet stayed up all night talking after a gig. Something was happening between us. I fell in love with him like I was falling in love with this new world opening up. Nothing could happen between us. He was married, though he said he was practically separated. Even I, with my very limited romantic experience beyond two long-term boyfriends, knew this was a red flag. We emailed, we had coffees, one chaste kiss. He said he would like to publish a collection of my poems. I was doing lots of gigs at the time for free or small fees. Enjoying trying new things out, finding my voice. He wrote a review of them for a local music magazine. Said my performance was “patchy”. This was the first time I’d been publicly reviewed. I asked him why he’d said that. I thought I’d done alright. He said one of his friends had wondered why people were saying such good things about this new performer. He didn’t want to seem biased. Anyway, I had been patchy. This felt wrong. But I don’t heed this other red flag.

Then he stormed out of coffee with me after a disagreement that was apparently about the value of poetry slams. He told the poetry group he was leaving because of this disagreement. He didn’t reply when I asked him what had happened or about the workshops I had been scheduled to do. I was devastated that I had offended him and that we weren’t in touch. So much so that I didn’t really register the way that this had impacted on my burgeoning new career and my place in this new and supportive community. Or that the promised collection of poems would never happen. Actually, because on the whole the community is supportive, it didn’t impact on that element at first. Beyond the gossip and the whispering. People saw something as simple or as complicated as two adult poets having a bit of a thing. Like me then, they didn’t consciously read who had power and who didn’t. I was still doing radio news shifts but poetry had become my life now. The city was refracted through poetry and poets. I teamed up with Karl, another of the Poetry Vandals and we started running workshops together and applied for a big Arts Council grant. We’d help other people find their voices too.

After a few months, Kevin got back in touch. He said that he’d stormed off because he loved me. I was genuinely stunned. I decided I was now the heroine in a tragic love story. We were mythic. This helped me not notice some other red flags that started flying. I began to heed wiser voices who said to keep away from him. But I became more interesting to him when I was withdrawn. He invited himself onto a Poetry Vandals trip abroad to perform at a festival. We were all surprised and perturbed. They thought his presence was something to do with me, but he said it wasn’t. I have written before about what happened there on the night of my thirtieth birthday. He was sad and behaving erratically because he had moved out of his marital home. As well as thinking I’m in a tragic love story, I have a saviour complex. I follow him to his hotel room. He asks me to lay down, to take my clothes off so we can just cuddle. I believe him literally, as I believe most things he says. It will take years before I recognise the way he ignored my “No”s was yet another abuse of power between us. In this instance there is a name for this abuse of power- it is called rape, but I don’t know this yet, despite the Philomela references in our emails which had already been screaming out from my unconscious. The next morning we met for coffee. He says we’re soulmates of the brain. Years later I will say in a comedy show that even I recognised this as code for “I do not fancy you at all”. A month later we meet up back in Newcastle and he says he has fallen in love with somebody else and will be moving to where she lives, though not to be with her.

I am writing this story and at some level I can see it is a story of a relationship between a manipulative man at a troubled moment in his life and an overly impressionable person who needed to read more books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” or do therapy or start internet dating. I did all of these things eventually. But the thing that means that it has impacted my life for a lot longer than it should have, is that he was a poet and I was a poet and my working life was in his hands for a while. The abuses of power were played out in an environment that was where we worked, as well as where we creatively expressed ourselves. I am fairly sure he saw himself as an equal co-star with me in a particularly crap, ultimately irrelevant, bit of his own tragic love stories. But what I also now see is the power imbalances. The way he offered me work then took it away. Said he would publish a collection and then didn’t. Reviewed me badly in public. Told other poets things about me that turned out not to be true. Came along to a festival where I was working. Although this sounds like a list of grievances, I have rarely seen or catalogued it this way. I just accepted it as the way things were in a situation where there was no redress and no Human Resources Department for poets.

Some other things happened. This story is already too long and detailed. The power imbalance was no longer the key thing. It was a dysfunctional connection that I still thought could be redeemed. Needless to say I shouldn’t have said yes to his suggestion that he publish my poems about him, alongside his new lover’s poems about him, and his own about both of us (well, probably mainly about himself, to be fair). Needless to say that didn’t happen anyway. For a decade we have mostly avoided each other. Nodded in the street in Edinburgh a couple of times. He has published, without acknowledgment, poems that rewrite at least two of my poems. The poems are in our collections. One of these poems was about the rape. So he literally overwrote and stole my poem about that experience. After a rare sighting of him in a pub in his city, one of my posters was defaced with the word “Liar”. I have avoided countless events where I thought he might be, or where there would be people he tried to discredit me to, presumably in case I ever told the story as a power imbalance. I have since met and worked with many wonderful people in poetry-world but my trust in the “scene” to hear the voices of women like me, to be a supportive space, has been shaken. I have tried to speak out before, but I have never named him before. Now, I am joining the chorus of women who are raising their voices.

We nightingales are transformed into something that does not quite get to have the qualities of rational, human discourse. Our voices are alternately beautiful and terrible. A seductive song of patterns we all recognise. An ugly song that gets bogged down in details and fragments and is dismissible as vengeance. But it is inviolable and it will not stop. It needs to be continuously re-heard and re-translated. It must be recognised as the warning that it is.

Power in poetry is relative. Running an open mike isn’t like running ICI. However, if you are in a position to give or withhold opportunities to somebody else then you are in a position of power over them and should be aware of not taking advantage of this. Because poetry, and other localised creative scenes shade from “amateur” to professional with many grey areas in between, it is hard to talk about professional codes of conduct. But power relationships exist across the spectrum and there are many blurred lines between what for some people is a hobby and what for others is work. Career and financial opportunities can be at stake, as well as, even more vitally, people’s wellbeing and confidence.

I have heard stories of residential tutors serially sleeping with their tutees, of women being pestered with late-night emails, of workshop leaders harassing their students, of mentors inappropriately touching their mentees, award judges making passes at shortlisted poets. The people doing this stuff are usually involved in patterns of similar behaviour. It isn’t usually a one-off, or a love that cannot be resisted. There are many small-scale poetry promoters, tutors, publishers, reviewers and other gatekeepers. Their activities are often unregulated. I am calling on them (us) to sign up to a code of conduct that will be drafted by the poetry community like the one being drawn up by the theatre community in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. I am calling on other Philomelas to keep speaking out and weaving your tapestries. We will hear you. We will believe you. We will help things change.

6 thoughts on “Nightingales, #MeToo and Poetry-World”

  1. Sorry you had a traumatic experience with a charismatic arts male. I’ve worked in offices with such guys on the go, and seen women competing for attention. Makes life horrendously hard for women (and men) who don’t play the game. I waste no time in sending them up summat rotten and they’re resurrected as characters in my work. ‘That’s the way to do it’!

  2. Thank you, Kate for such an intelligent, honest account – essential in itself – that also points a way forward. Creative Writing in Universities and in the avant/innovative poetic field has also been undergoing examination recently for just this issue. Being so marginal to any ‘scene’, I’m not speaking out of direct experience, but, for example, the Chicago Review (59:1/2) contains thoughtful responses, including an Editors’ Statement on ‘Sexism and Sexual Assault in Literary Communities’.

  3. Hello Kate … thanks for this…as I think you may have surmised before… ME Too … I suffered from this very same man. Although not for the same reasons. When he first introduced himself I too thought I’d found a great new poetry buddy as did my friends who also really liked him. We only worked together. But like you there where the red flags I didn’t trust or recognise . But unfortunately and ultimately he abused his partner of the time and the police where involved…It was all very serious stuff.

    However I did try and speak out to some in the performance poetry community, I’d helped create, built and supported out of my own pocket etc. They unfortunately choose not believe or support me. They totally ghosted me and still do. In certain quarters some actively supported him. He was left to rome, publish other poets, as he spread his rumours about me, my friends and my 15/16 year old daughter of the time (this is what really freaked me out the most). Its was very tricky because the victim (a friend of a friend) was scared (as was I and my friend) and she understandable didn’t want to be named.

    I lost my world, my confidence, my trust in my community and people in general in one fail swoop and almost my career. I even thought of giving up altogether. Now I no longer inhabit my local poetry scene and focus much more on the teaching practice and presently i’m doing a MEd. But I can’t say I ever got over it, I lost my trust in humanity and still I feel very hurt and unsafe in my local poetry scene, he still inhabits and is hailed by many still. What I would really like is an apology from certain people and quarters (they know who they are) that might help a little, but I won’t hold my breath.

    I think the phrase that enraged me the most at the time was how people kept telling me to ‘be professional’ and say nothing. I just couldn’t understand how being silent about abuse was being ‘professional’ but people seamed to think it was and used it as an ‘Out Clause’ repeatedly not to get involved, ignore and feel expunged of any guilt/shame in their own self interest. Its a phrase I’ve now learnt to hate.

    But I think what I wanted to highlight here is the real collateral damage, beyond the victim and the event, cause by these individuals it not just about the sexual abuse its about the abuse of power, full stop, and if we really think staying silent is professional, its not. Thats the way to perpetuate the abuse, its what they count on.

    But I also want to thank you personally Kate for coming to support me at the Women Aid gig I put on. I still owe you for that! And although we never spoke openly about the ‘WHY’ I got the impression you’d kinda guest and it meant a lot to me, to get your support. Its sad that none of my poetry community came, they where invited and they missed a great gig But if its any consolation my daughter is now a real fan of yours.

    So, thank you for being the brave you, with a generous open heart. We need more people in the world like you. And we enjoy watching your progress and bravery.

    All my love, respect and thank you

    Anita x

    1. Hi Anita,

      I’m going to reply to you publicly because it feels like these public conversations are ones that can be so useful to so many other people. Even though it can still feel like a risk and a transgression.

      First of all, I’m so sorry that confronting an abuse of power cost you so much. You did the right thing, and a brave thing, and were treated as if you did the wrong thing. It’s a reminder of why so many of us haven’t felt able to confront abusers. It’s such a sad and vivid example of, as you say, the “collateral damage” that abusers can cause. Breaking bonds of solidarity and community is one of the things the powerful need to do in order to operate successfully but it feels like those bonds are one of the most effective ways that people can feel safe enough to speak out and to fight back. Someone like you, who has been a pioneer in your poetry scene and has so much to offer it, being pushed out like this, also shows how abusers going unchecked is something that damages the whole poetry ecosystem as well as having a devastating effect on individual lives.

      Yours is the fourth communication I’ve had since I posted this blog that confirms that this poet continued his patterns- and some. I had no idea, until those, that he went on to be convicted of domestic abuse against his partner. Or that he had abused power in other relationships in the poetry world. Despite writing about the rape in 2012, I still felt like it was just me. Whilst knowing at some other level that it couldn’t be.

      The (quite complicated, multiple) reasons why we didn’t talk openly about any of this when I came and did that gig for you, seem to apply to why so much of this stuff remains hidden.

      A key reason for me is that, despite my generally big gob about all things, at the end of my relationship with this man, things became so weird and upsetting that I suffered what seemed to be a post-traumatic stress sort of reaction and talking about him still brought it on. It wasn’t the rape that I didn’t realise at the time was a rape, or anything perhaps more obvious like that (which had in any case happened a couple of years prior). It was the labyrinthine set of odd communications and events that happened and that I couldn’t understand or process.

      Although I’d heard some things he said about me afterwards, which were inaccurate, I remembered thinking that he didn’t need to neutralise anything I said, because I couldn’t talk about him anyway. Also, I wasn’t at that point thinking about what he’d done as serial abuses of power. I felt ashamed and culpable. I’d been warned. I could also see he manipulated people. And still felt sorry for him at several levels. I saw what he did as survival strategies. Which they probably are, but then that excuses them, rather than recognises their danger. In a strange way, I also thought that because he probably expected I would talk badly about him to other poets, it was an odd point of honour not to. All this was like an invisible gag.

      I was pleased and relieved when you asked me to do that gig in Edinburgh; Because I knew you’d worked with him and therefore somehow he mustn’t have convinced every poet in the world I was a terrible person as I paranoidly imagined, and because Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities and it felt like it had become out of bounds. Although we hadn’t properly met before, you were one of the first performance poets I ever saw and I really admired your work and the huge amount of things you did for poets and audiences in Scotland.

      I think all I guessed, on the basis of his name not coming up at all, was that there might have been some sort of rupture, And that rupture wouldn’t have been unusual and was possibly based on you seeing through something. And that possibly we both understood not to go there.

      I had no idea of the extent of what you’d been through and how that connected to other things. Philomela’s tongue was well and truly held by all the complicated consequences of what had happened.

      Thank you so much for getting in touch and bravely writing this and for having spoken out in the first place. I remember the morning after the gig with you and your lovely daughter (who inspired me about how she was going to environmentally engineer and save the world!) and feeling very happy to be there with you both.

      Here’s to continuing to speak out, and to see through what is said about power and “being professional”. I hope we both continue to find new bonds of community and solidarity when we do so.

      Much love and respect in return

      Kate x

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